Writing Inside the Drawer

Hey all, it’s Erin. Today I’m excited to have Kendall Kulper to talk about “drawer manuscripts.” Take it away, Kendall!

First, thank you to Erin and the rest of the PubCrawlers for having me today! And now…

The Drawer.

Ugh. I know. There is not a lot of love out there for The Drawer—that place where would-be novels sit and collect dust, never to see the light of day. Writers warned me about The Drawer from day one (“Yeah, that’s where your first novel will go.”), and even though they were nice about it (“Everyone’s got one [or two or three or a dozen] novels knocking around the drawer, don’t worry.”), I sort of didn’t believe that anything I wrote would end up there.

And then my first novel—the one that I poured my heart and soul into, the one that I quit my job to work on full-time—spent ten months getting nothing but a string of rejections.

Oh, and then the novel after that, which, despite being better-written than my first effort in pretty much every way, got hit with the worst possible timing ever (top tip: don’t try to sell a dystopian novel a month before The Hunger Games movie comes out).

There was nothing fun about deciding to shelve these two novels. There’s nothing fun about telling friends and family that the book they listened to you talk about for months is going exactly nowhere. Or looking back at all the days, weeks, months, years you spent on a project and calculating how much actual salary you could have earned in that time. Or wondering how often you’ll put your work and yourself out there if your dreams just get treated like monkey meat.

But I’ve always been a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” kind of person, so at some point between the inevitability of my second novel never seeing the light of day and the decision to potentially add yet another novel to the drawer, I chose to see things differently. I chose to see The Drawer not as a sign of failure, but as an opportunity to learn.

Because as worthless as I thought Novel 1 and Novel 2 were, they weren’t, in fact, wastes of time. They taught me things, like how to properly plot and how to develop characters and how to actually finish a novel and how to move on to another idea. They taught me to accept rejection gracefully (and with copious amounts of peanut butter M&Ms) and to pay attention to criticism. They taught me how to set aside something I love because to hold onto it would only hold me back.

As depressing as it is to throw away a novel, there’s something freeing about The Drawer. I mean, the whole point of putting away a project that isn’t working is so you can focus on something new and (hopefully) better. And sure, there are times when you can save a novel from The Drawer with some tough love and good editing. And yes, it is heartbreaking to say goodbye to characters and stories that you love. But learning when to stop, when to cut your losses and start again—that’s a gift.

I started my third novel with The Drawer in mind. I tempered my expectations for this novel and told myself that if I got just a slightly better query response, I’d count it as a success. And because my goal shifted from getting an agent or editor to writing a better book than the last two, I took more risks with my writing. I stopped paying attention to trends or wish-lists and wrote the novel I wanted.

Even if nothing happened with this book, I knew it would be a good, worthwhile experience, and I’d take that knowledge and put it to use on my next project (and the next one, and the one after that, until I got to the one that worked).

And maybe it was this mentality and certainly having two novels under my belt helped a lot, but in the end, that third novel’s not going into The Drawer—it’s going to be a real-life book.

I’m grateful, of course, and thrilled, but I’m also happy that it’s this novel that made it and not the other two. Because as much as I loved those two, they weren’t ready, I wasn’t ready, and neither were the right book for me to start a career with. I needed two books to figure out who I am, as a writer and a person, and the kinds of stories I want to tell. In the end, they gave me the experience necessary to write a book I’m immensely proud of.

The Drawer can be a scary place. It can be a sad place. We live and breathe with our stories, so much so that putting them away almost feels like a betrayal. I still think back to those characters and worlds and wonder what if. We all do. But how much responsibility do we really have to the stories we write? We dream them up, we live with them, we make them better, we send them into the world, and when it’s clear they’re not ready or not right, we have to take them back, put them away, and start again. That’s what The Drawer gives us: a chance to start again. And if The Drawer taught me anything, it’s that you’ve gotta let go to get better.

Kendall KulperKENDALL KULPER is the author of Salt & Storm, a Young Adult historical fantasy to be published by Little, Brown in September 2014. She grew up in the wilds of New Jersey and currently lives in Chicago (where she dreams of someday returning to the land of thin-crust pizza) with her economist husband, Dave, and Abby, her chronically-anxious Australian Shepherd.

  

14 Responses to Writing Inside the Drawer

  1. Anita Sep 11 2013 at 7:45 am #

    I agree that the drawer is not a bad thing and that we learn from all of our drawer novels. But I’ve had to struggle with the decision between knowing when something needs a major revision or just needs to go in the drawer. Don’t want to give up too early, but also don’t want to lose precious time that could be spent on a new ( and hopefully better) project.

    • Kendall Sep 11 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Hi Anita,

      You’re right, it’s a really fine line and a very personal decision. What helped me decide was the feedback I got from agents and friends, which gave me a much better picture for how much work the book needed. In both cases, I would have had to tear them down and tell something completely different–fundamentally, the story would just not work without massive revisions.

      Whether to go ahead with those revisions or let the project go is something only you can decide, and how comfortable you are with either idea should help you figure out what to do. I would often ask myself, “Am I still excited about this? Am I working out a sense of duty to this story or out of a sense of love?”

      It’s tough, and I hope whatever you decide, it all works out for you.

      Best of luck!
      -k

  2. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Sep 11 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Kendall, thank you so much for this post! I especially love your closing line: “if The Drawer taught me anything, it’s that you’ve gotta let go to get better.”

    I have a few of my own projects sitting in The Drawer. Maybe one day I’ll come back to them. Maybe they will gather dust for all of eternity. But the point was that leaving them behind was the only way to move forward.

    Thanks again for stopping by Pub Crawl. We loved having you! 🙂

    • Kendall Sep 11 2013 at 11:21 am #

      Thanks so much, Erin! It’s been a lot of fun!

  3. The Book Wars Sep 11 2013 at 11:40 am #

    Wow!

    Thank you for this post. Parents, husbands, relatives, friends – everyone always asks ‘How’s that novel coming?’ and really, I don’t know! It’s just being written one page at a time and it might never leave my desktop. It’s encouraging to read your post. I think you are right, every page, every story churned out, each book is, if nothing else, a valuable experience.

    Cheers!

    • Kendall Sep 11 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It’s true–I started to dread when friends and family would ask “How’s the book?” You know they mean well, but sometimes it can feel like you have to defend this crazy choice to write a novel. I finally started telling people pretty much the same thing: “It’s going really well, but it’s a long process.”

      Good luck to you!

  4. Gwen Cole Sep 11 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    This post is 100% true. I’ve had a few stories go into the drawer myself, but I learned the same thing you did after the first one. And after making that decision, to let go and continue on, it feels great. Thank you for the awesome post!

    • Kendall Sep 11 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      Hi Gwen,

      You totally nailed it. It’s a scary decision, but I always felt like that relief that comes from focusing on a new project is a sign that I’ve made the *right* decision.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Valerie Sep 12 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Okay, prurient curiosity time! (Great post–I dread the drawer, but this helped.)

    I was just wondering–since it sounds like you don’t plan to ever revisit these novels–whether you ever considered making them public for publicity’s sake. For instance, I can imagine that if I drawered something, I might publish them on fictionpress.com just because there may be people on there who would enjoy them and it could work as a sampler for my (hypothetical) other books. I’ve seen people work up massive fanbases via fictionpress, though that was almost a decade ago so I don’t know if it still works that way now (I was an avid reader there when I was too young and geographically distant to buy books). Or would you say (now that you’re published) that anything less than your best is not worth showing to anyone for fear that it reflects badly on your other writing?

    I realize it’s a bit of an odd question, but I do wonder if drawer-pieces ever see the light of day!

    • Kendall Sep 12 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      Hi Valerie,

      Personally, I have no plans to make them public. The truth is, they don’t really reflect me as a writer anymore–not even so much skill-wise but in the kind of style and themes I most enjoy writing. I am also a perfectionist, and anything I make public I would want to be the very best I’m capable of, which those two definitely are not.

      I’m sure there are cases where authors do publish drawer books online, but more often, I think, for niche projects that would be more difficult to traditionally sell as a book (a handful of short stories, for example). And I think a lot of authors’ contracts with publishers expressly forbid them from publishing anything within a certain amount of time, even if it’s online.

      Hope that answered your question, and thanks for stopping by!

  6. Rosanna Silverlight Sep 12 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    Kendall, thank you SO MUCH for writing this very true and valuable post. Your wisdom and experience really shines through and has given me a lot of encouragement to keep going with my own WIP, which I feel like I’ve been working on FOREVER.

    Honestly, I think fear of The Drawer holds me back a lot, and I’m sure I’d have written more novels by now if I wasn’t terrified of failing before even beginning. I’m only just getting past that fear and trying to write courageously, and it’s a big thing to accept that the novel I’m working on now — my first novel to make it as far as actual revisions — might end up in The Drawer anyway.

    But you’re right — Drawer or no Drawer, this novel will never be a failure because of the incredible amount I’ve learned while writing and revising it. I will approach writing my next novel COMPLETELY differently. I will have one revision under my belt and be better equipped for the next time around. I will be a better writer, with a better grip on both my inspiration (come here, Muse *throws butterfly net*) and my craft.

    Thanks once again, and huge congratulations on Salt & Storm! 🙂

    • Kendall Sep 12 2013 at 5:31 pm #

      So glad you found it helpful! Stressing over failure is definitely a tough hurdle to get over, and it really helps (for me at least) to remember that *any* time you’re writing, you’re gaining experience and getting closer to improvement.

      Good luck with writing, and thanks for the kind words!

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